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Hospitals on Guard After Abduction Attempt

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hospital officials across Ventura County are reviewing their security procedures and reminding parents to be watchful of their newborns after a woman tried to abduct a baby from an Oxnard hospital this week.

A woman dressed in clothing resembling a nurse’s uniform took Ricardo Herrera Jr. from the arms of a relative Wednesday evening at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, authorities said.

The woman told family members standing in the hallway with the hours-old baby that the child needed to have its picture taken and that she would be gone only a few minutes, said Ricardo’s mother, 22-year-old Maria Anjelica Arevalo of Oxnard.

Arevalo and the child’s father, 21-year-old Ricardo Herrera Sr., were in an adjacent room and unaware of the abduction attempt until they heard a commotion in the hallway, she said.

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After taking the baby, the woman tried to leave the hospital, but a monitoring device worn by the baby set off an electronic security system.

“The alarms were sounding in the hospital, and a doctor grabbed the woman by the exit and asked her whose baby that was,” Arevalo said. “She told him it was hers, but he didn’t believe her.”

The woman handed the baby to the doctor and ran off.

“All I heard was my family crying and screaming, but then the nurse brought back my baby. I didn’t have time to get scared,” Arevalo said.

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Police describe the woman as a Latina in her early 20s, 5 feet 6, 135 pounds, with dark brown hair worn in a bun and a clear, light complexion. She was dressed in a light blue T-shirt, white pants and white shoes. She spoke both Spanish and English and was carrying a white, single-handle plastic baby carrier, which was covered with a white blanket, according to Oxnard Police Det. Robert Cox.

After leaving the hospital, the suspect ran to the Shopping at the Rose retail center on Rose Avenue. Witnesses said she told them her baby had been abducted and that she needed to call police, Cox said. Surveillance photos taken at Wal-Mart show the woman leaving the store’s south entrance after using the phone.

The search moved to Ventura shortly after 8 p.m., after an employee at Community Memorial Hospital spotted a woman matching the suspect’s description wandering around the lobby, said Assistant Executive Director Carol Dimse.

“She said she was looking for her mother who was visiting a patient, and she couldn’t remember the patient’s name,” Dimse said.

When the employee offered to assist the woman, she ran, Dimse said.

On Thursday, St. John’s defended its security procedures and pointed out that its monitoring devices--similar to those used by libraries to ensure that books are not swiped--helped thwart the abduction.

“The procedures are in place and they worked,” said Rita Schumacher, a hospital spokeswoman.

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Columbia Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, where 200 babies are born each month, also uses an electronic monitoring system, said spokeswoman Kris Carraway.

“Our in-house security system triggers numerous alarms throughout the facility. No matter what door, no matter what pathway, no matter what hallway, it will be triggered if a baby leaves without first being discharged,” Carraway said.

Citing security concerns, Carraway would not disclose specific information about the system’s operation. But some systems use transmitters in anklets or bracelets worn to identify the baby.

Not all hospitals use electronic security systems to monitor newborns. Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura and Simi Valley Adventist Hospital both rely on passwords between parents and hospital personnel. They also use coded announcements on the public address system to mobilize staff in the event of an abduction.

“It is very important for all parents to understand all major medical centers take excruciating pains to make sure that the baby is protected,” Carraway said.

Those procedures include introducing parents to their nurses and making sure employees wear photo IDs. But officials agree that the best defense against abduction is to not turn a child over to anyone you are unsure about.

Each year, the nation’s more than 3,500 birthing facilities deliver about 4.16 million babies, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. From 1983 to the present, 94 babies have been abducted from health care facilities, said case analyst Cathy Nahirny. The majority, 52, were snatched from the mother’s room, 16 were taken from pediatrics departments, 14 from nurseries and 12 from elsewhere on the premises, she said. Eighty-nine of the children were located; five are still missing, according to Nahirny.

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Authorities in Ventura County could not recall an abduction from a local hospital.

Studies show that infant abductions from medical facilities are most often committed by women who for a variety of reasons are not able to have children of their own. “They fantasize that they have had a baby and that the baby is really there,” she said.

The irony, according to Carraway, is that the woman who puts an infant in great danger while abducting it quite often believes she has its best interests in mind.

“Very rarely is it because they want to kidnap a child and sell it. The child they take will replace some kind of loss,” Carraway said.

Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, which delivers about 208 babies per month, has used an electronic security system since 1992 and mentions the security of newborns in its prenatal classes, according to Dimse. “We try not to alarm parents, but it’s a fact that in this day and age, these kinds of things happen.

“The question does come up, how do we protect our baby? Particularly now after this most recent event, I’m sure it will be a question that comes up more often,” she said.

Because of the possible sighting of the suspect at Community Memorial, Dimse ordered additional security Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning she met with staff to reinforce security procedures.

She spoke to her staff not only as a registered nurse and hospital administrator, but as a parent.

“In this day and age one has to be aware of the potential of something happening,” she said. “I take my granddaughters out, and I never let go of their hands.”

Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this story.


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